Tapering, or how to prepare for race day.

Tapering, or how to prepare for race day
Race day is coming near. A whole year of training, sacrifices and suffering has to result in your best performance. You have trained so hard for this. Starting your preparations might have been easy with a-specific low intensity training sessions, but as race day came closer, training became more race specific, the number of training sessions increased and training sessions became both longer and more intensive. You saved the hardest training sessions for last. But now comes the most important and possibly the hardest part: the last two weeks before racing day that can make or break your best performance: Tapering.

What is tapering

What is tapering, and why is it important.
Tapering can be defined as a structured reduction in training load (as compared to peak training load) for a specific period of time prior to athletic competition as a means to enhance performance. In simpler terms, taper is formalized recovery training that occurs after a heavy training block (1).

High level performance

When you want to perform at your highest level, training is important. A common error under athletes is, however, thinking that training itself makes you stronger. Although we do need training to get stronger and faster, it is not the training, but the resting or recovery period after training that makes us stronger. Training is decline. Muscle damage, acidosis, salt and flued imbalance and the depletion of the available energy sources in the body makes that our performance level after training is less than before. Resting is necessary to recover. And when the body gets enough time to rest and recover, together with enough necessary nutrition, the body will get stronger by means of super compensation. Super compensation is the post training period during which performance capacity is higher than it was prior to the training period. This is because the increase in fitness following a training session does not stop at the initial fitness level. Instead the body enters a period of super compensation during which fitness surpasses the initial fitness level.

Building your training

A good training regime will build up to racing day or a racing period in such a way that the most race specific, the hardest and longest training session are closest to racing day. But without tapering this will mean that during racing day the body is fatigued and depleted from energy. So the aim of tapering is to diminish fatigue induced by intense training, restore the energy supply and maximize physiological adaptations and performance (2).2010_12_28_20_19_15

How to taper

There are many different ways to taper. For a beneficial effect from tapering there needs to be an interaction between the duration of the tapering period, reduction in volume and reduction in intensity. A shorter tapering period has to result in a larger decrease in training volume to be effective. A tapering period of only 4 days with a reduction in training volume of 90% has shown to be effective (3)(4). The most commonly used taper regime however, is a tapering period of about 2 weeks with a progressive reduction in training volume from 40% to 70% (1). There is some controversy about the intensity of training in the tapering period. Where most studies agree on the effect of reduced volume, not all agree on the best strategy for intensity during tapering. A study where a decrease in volume (with only 25%) was compensated with an increase in intensity to compensate did not show beneficial effects (5). However, a nice review study by Mujika concluded that tapering should be characterized by high-intensity training (6).

Other aspects

A major consideration during tapering is the mental aspect. Although the main focus of the taper is to get the body into the most optimum physical shape, the taper can have consequences for the “psychological shape”. Everybody handles the decrease in training volume differently. Some people may enjoy the relatively rest after a period of hard training. They notice the increase in strength that comes from the taper and feel their body recover. However, this is not the case for everybody. Often athletes get worried in this period. They are afraid that they haven’t done enough. They get grumpy, and don’t know what to do with their time. A decrease of endorphin (the happy hormone that comes with hard training sessions), may even cause a mild depression. Biggest mistake is to fill this feeling with more training. A good thing about high intensity tapering is that at least the endorphin levels can be sustained.

tapering3Close to racing day

To ensure the insecure athletes, some testing sessions may be incorporated in a tapering period. And for the athletes themselves, this is the time to relax and enjoy other beauties in live. Spent some more time with friends and family, go catch a movie, go to the beach. Thanks to all the hard work and suffering you did before, these are the things that will make you better stronger and faster at this time. You will see on racing day.

1. Murach K.A. and Bagley J.R. Less Is More: The Physiological Basis for Tapering in Endurance, Strength, and Power Athletes. Sports 2015, 3, 209-218
2. Bosquet, L.; Montpetit, J.; Arvisais, D.; Mujika, I. Effects of tapering on performance: A meta-analysis. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2007, 39, 1358–1365.
3. Neary, J.P.; Martin, T.P.; Reid, D.C.; Burnham, R.; Quinney, H.A. The effects of a reduced exercise duration taper programme on performance and muscle enzymes of endurance cyclists. Eur. J. Appl.Physiol. Occup. Physiol. 1992, 65, 30–36.
4. Shepley, B.; MacDougall, J.D.; Cipriano, N.; Sutton, J.R.; Tarnopolsky, M.A.; Coates, G. Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. J. Appl. Physiol. 1992, 72, 706–711.
5. Harber, M.P.; Gallagher, P.M.; Creer, A.R.; Minchev, K.M.; Trappe, S.W. Single muscle fiber contractile properties during a competitive season in male runners. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. 2004, 287, R1124–R1131.
6. Mujika I. Intense training: the key to optimal performance before and during the taper Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 2:24-31

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